This article is for people who have played and finished The Last of Us Part 2, as well as people who don’t care about spoilers. Basically, we’re going to find and we’re going to spoil every last one of them.
Sam White: Now we’ve both actually finished The Last of Us Part 2 it seems like the perfect opportunity for us to get into [SPOILER ALERT] the nitty gritty. I think a lot of people are going to be interested in how Part 2 deals with a bunch of different factors – both in terms of the original and how new characters are handled – so I guess we should start at the beginning. What did you make of the opening?
Kirk McKeand: It’s interesting how Naughty Dog left this breadcrumb trail to follow in the trailers, misleading players a bit. I fully expected the game to open with the winter dance, something bad to happen, and for a revenge story to spawn from that. But no, it opens by directly dealing with the end of the first game: Joel killing the Fireflies and lying to Ellie.
It’s really understated – a stark contrast to the prologue of the original – but it tells you more about Joel as a character than the opening of the original. “I saved her,” he tells Tommy, his brother, as the camera cuts to footage of the corridor, slick with blood and dead Fireflies piled up. His lie to Ellie at the end of the first game was arguably his biggest sin – outside of potentially dooming the world – but now he’s lying to himself as well. I loved it, though I do think the actual “game” has a significant jump in quality once the human enemies are introduced.
SW: Yeah understated is right. But I like how up front it is. You know from the get go that the game is going to deal with this lie. And it sets up this tension that Ellie is, at some point, going to find out. Also, the entire opening sequence, when you’re riding through the sunset, is just stunning. Gustavo’s soundtrack is fucking amazing. What did you think of the way the game deals with the next few hours? A lot happens. You get introduced to Abby, and of course, Joel faces a squelchy demise.
KM: Yeah, that opening is beautiful – the writing and the visuals. I had to laugh because the game is like, “press L1 to gallop”, and I was like, “I don’t think I will”. I just wanted to soak in it.
Abby’s introduction is smart. You control her quite early on and you don’t understand her motives. She’s with this group who feel like side characters, but you really bond with them over the game. Early on, you hate them all.
Joel obviously isn’t a good guy, but there’s a kindness in him and he does care about Ellie. I love that he keeps a book, An Idiot’s Guide to Space, on his bedside. He’s devoted to learning Ellie’s interests so they have some common ground. But he’s done unforgivable stuff. Even outside of the final scene of the first game, there’s that bit where they’re ambushed by raiders on the roadside. Ellie asks how he knew it was an ambush and he replies, “I’ve been on both sides.” He’s a killer and a torturer. His fondness of Ellie doesn’t absolve him of his sins. But still, when he’s lying there on the floor, leg shattered from a shotgun blast, hair sticky with blood, you feel what Ellie feels.
You can’t help but hate these newcomers who did this to him. The writers do a brilliant job of putting you on her side at that point, which is where you need to be for the later stuff to have such an impact. I’d also like to touch on the reaction to his death that played out across social media: people were really angry about the spoilers. They called it “bad storytelling”. But surely the fact they care so much about a fictional character’s death is just testament to the writers at Naughty Dog. This developer creates some of the best characters and stories in games. If you really have that connection with Joel, why doubt the writers now?
SW: Yeah Joel’s death was a mix of emotions for me. I didn’t really feel sorry for him, but that scene stressed me out. My heart was racing, I felt anxious. It happens so quickly, so potently. I think a lot of people would expect this sort of act to take a few more hours to build up to, but it’s swift and unrelenting and it hits you hard (it hits him harder lol). I also liked that the game covers up a lot of that scene until much later.
The fact Ellie can’t hear Abby and friends vouching for her to live, only for her to then go and kill a lot of them later on, is desperately sad to me. I think I empathised with Abby sooner than a lot of players will. I know one of the main concerns at Naughty Dog is that perhaps some players won’t empathise with her. But I think if the game were to make me choose, I’d really struggle, which is a testament to how strong the character building is. I was definitely more Team Abby than Team Ellie at the end.
Did you like Abby from the get go? What did you think of how the game is structured and how it deals with those perspectives?
KM: I empathised with Abby’s reasoning, but not her methods. She went too far. After all, Joel and Tommy did save her. But even she knows she crossed a line. Her friends look at her differently afterwards. But that’s the main theme of the story isn’t it – how far would you go for some payback, and what are you willing to lose?
Once I’d spent some proper time with Abby, I actually preferred her to Ellie. Like you say, Ellie is pretty fucked up by the end. She only cares about revenge. Obviously some of that is brought on by the PTSD of seeing Joel killed in front of her, but she basically forces Abby to fight after she already spared Ellie’s life earlier. Right at the end, Abby is malnourished and weak. Ellie has a knife, Abby doesn’t. Abby just wants to save her friend, Lev, but Ellie wants to fight. It’s poetic that she can’t follow through, but Ellie loses it all for some blood. Even two of her fingers, which means she also loses the main connection she had to Joel – the ability to play that guitar he’s polishing up for her in the opening scene.
I’ve recently been watching our video person playing through the original and she just got to the bit where Sam gets infected and turns. Before that, he asks Ellie what she’s afraid of. At first she laughs it off and says “scorpions”, but then her more serious answer is, “I’m scared of being by myself. I’m scared of ending up alone.” Now Dina and J.J. are gone from the farmstead when she finally returns home, she’s lost that connection to Joel. It’s very sad. It’s more sad than if Ellie died at the end, even. I love that even lines that you’ve forgotten from the original game are made stronger by Part 2 – I think it definitely deserved that distinction as a Part 2, rather than an ordinary numbered sequel. It’s a story that asks: what would the fallout of the original game be?
SW: Yeah watching her lose everything is heartbreaking. Ellie is losing her reason to live, and Abby is finding hers. I love how that Pearl Jam song is used as this reference point for Joel too. And I thought it was so devastating how, right at the end, you realise Joel and Ellie made up. I think some people will say that the game has a clear ending and then goes on for a few more hours, but I think that’s entirely the point. Ellie and Dina get to a place that is for anyone else the perfect life, for the reality they live in. The farm house is beautiful, they have peace, and they’re looking after a baby. It’s the end for a normal person – but not for her. That final stretch in Santa Barbara is supposed to, in my interpretation, feel like one step too far. The game is making you feel this weird dissonance between leaving that idyllic place and going back to something horrible.
In terms of her companions, I thought they were brilliant. I love Jesse – he’s an awesome character that you empathise with almost instantly. And Dina is wonderful. At first she jarred me a bit because she’s clearly trying hard to get Ellie to fancy her, but by the end I was in love with her. I thought Shannon Woodward’s performance throughout was incredible; especially in that scene at the end where she’s begging Ellie to stay. She nailed that.
Mechanically, I think the companions were way better to fight alongside as well. They helped kill infected more efficiently and solved puzzles, and it felt like you had a human person there with you rather than just an NPC waiting for the next narrative beat. Speaking of companions, what did you think of Yara and Lev?
KM: Two of my favourite characters in the game, actually. You don’t really know anything about the Seraphites before you meet them (other than the fact they cut scars into their faces, communicate in whistles, and pull people’s guts out). Obviously they’re extremely bigoted, and they’ve twisted the words of a wise woman to suit their own methods – much like some do with the scriptures from real religions. Their blatant transphobia is disgusting, and it’s painted as unforgivable, which I think is key. We actually have an article on the trans representation in the works from one of our brilliant freelancers.
Lev – played by an incredible trans actor, Ian Alexander – is trying to escape this cult. Lev and his sister, Yara, are outcast because Lev shaved his head and began identifying as male. When you meet them, you’re forced together, but Abby decides to go and save them from the Seraphites. It’s not romantic in a traditional sense, but it’s kind of a Romeo and Juliet tale, where these people from different groups that hate each other come together and realise their groups are both bullshit in their own unique ways.
I also love how they have been raised with their own language so they don’t get some of Abby’s slang. When she teaches Lev what “cool” means, and Lev later gets mixed up and says, “that’s cold”. Loved that. Lev and Abby’s scene on the skybridge is one of my favourites in the game as well. Lev seems fearless – this tiny teenager – where Abby – this ox of a woman (please suplex me) – is shitting herself. That little touch where if you look down when up high as Abby, the screen distorts and she starts to shake – I adore those details. And then when it comes to Abby switching sides – or more like saying fuck you to both of them – I’m glad it was Lev who survived and not Yara. It feels like Abby and Lev have a better dynamic, and Lev’s story was only just beginning. As for other characters, Owen is my absolute boy and I’d take a golf club for him.
SW: It’s interesting you say that, as I know there was a lot of discussion internally as to which character out of Lev and Yara would die. Initially it was Lev, but I think for the same reasons you say, Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross decided to change it. They actually had a lot of arguments about that. In the final version, Yara’s death feels like the end of an arc like you say. She’s saved her brother from their mother, who’s so devout to the Seraphites that she attacked Lev when he returned to the island. Whereas Lev has just figured out who he is, and I think the story is a lot stronger for it.
Owen is another brilliant one. At first he annoyed me a bit. He comes across like a bit of a dick. He’s flippant and doesn’t appear all that heartwarming. But then once you get into it and figure out what he’s like, he’s one of, if not my favourite newcomers in the whole game. The sequence with the aquarium is brilliant. And you get a couple of lovely little flashbacks to him there, like when he’s decorated it all for Christmas. Like, he’s a bit of a knob not prioritising his pregnant girlfriend who is clearly struggling, but I guess it’s the post-apocalypse so the normal rules on monogamy might be out the window? I think it’s a good example of how grey the whole game is. People just make choices and there’s never really a sense of anyone being good or bad, they’re all just coping.
I’m interested in what you made of the set pieces. This game has a LOT of them. What did you make of moments like Ground Zero, or the skyscraper sequence, or heading to the island to get Lev back?
KM: The Island was probably my favourite gameplay sequence in the entire game. It felt a bit like Metal Gear Solid, with you snaking through the grass while two different factions wage war all around you. It made the world and stakes feel bigger than you – like you’re trapped in this conflict and trying to get out, killing by necessity. As for Ground Zero, I think it’s such a great concept. I wasn’t expecting a boss fight in the game, but I think it works. There’s only the one, unless you count the bloater in the Ellie flashback, and it’s not like you’re having to shoot a glowing weak point or anything. It’s just this terrifying mass of flesh and claws, and you have to use everything you have to keep it away. It’s atmospheric as hell.
Oh, I just realised there is another boss – Ellie. I couldn’t believe it when you fight her as Abby. She kicked my ass so many times. It’s genius that you’re fully on-board the Abby train by this point. I genuinely wanted to make Ellie pay for killing the people who I bonded with through the second half of the game. Your loyalty jumps all over the place and it’s extremely smart.
SW: Yeah for me the boss fight was maybe the one part of the game I got frustrated. I love the lore aspect of that whole sequence, heading down into the hospital that housed the first infected in Seattle 25 years ago. It was really scary, and you didn’t know what you were going to find. The setting reminded me of Alien a bit, and the boss itself was Best Of Resident Evil. But the darkness down there annoyed me when it came to fighting that boss. Did you know he’s called The Rat King? I found his name in the model viewer in the game’s extras on the main menu, which you should check out by the way because the concept art is amazing. But yeah, once I figured out a route to navigate around and avoid the boss, it was fine, but I think it’s the only time in the entire game I actively had a moment of not enjoying myself.
As for that fight with Ellie and Abby, oh my god. It was so tense. At first I thought you sort of could deal with Ellie like any normal enemy, so I charged at her, and I had my face totally fucked up by Ellie’s shotgun. Learned from that one pretty quickly.
We’re going on a bit now so I guess we should talk about how you think this game stacks up, overall, against the first. And also whether you think it’s going to be the sort of game that defines the PS4 in the same way the original did the PS3?
KM: Totally. I think it’s maybe the best game I’ve played this entire generation. My emotions were all over the place. It’s testament to the writers how what’s perhaps my favourite scene in the entire game doesn’t even feature any of the excellent stealth and combat. Joel takes Ellie to an abandoned museum for her birthday and you walk around the exhibit reading dinosaur facts. You put a hat on a dinosaur and mess around climbing the skeletons. Then you head upstairs and it’s a space exhibit. Joel has brought a cassette recording of the moon landings with him, Ellie puts a space helmet on, and they strap into a landing module while she lets her imagination run wild.
It’s Ellie as we saw her in Left Behind – a proper kid. It’s before she discovers the lie Joel told and she’s happy. It’s lovely. It made me feel feelings. It was probably the most impactful moment for me, and that’s in a game packed with impactful moments. It’s also clever how they pepper that section with resources to keep the tension up. Naughty Dog really took the criticisms of the obvious combat arenas from the first game onboard. It’s just a masterpiece. I feel like we could just talk about it back and forth forever, but about 90 percent of the people reading this would have checked out ages ago. Me and you are The Last of Us, blogging into the apocalypse.
SW: Nah mate they’ve just read my bits, it’s fine.
But yeah I totally agree. I think it’s mechanically a far stronger game than the first, definitely the most satisfying game that Naughty Dog has ever made. Stealth, combat, exploration; all brilliant. It’s also my favourite in terms of structure. Never seen a game do this sort of thing before, and for the team to pull off a lot of satisfying narrative beats that had a lot of baggage attached to them was remarkable.
The way they dealt with Ellie finding out about the lie just felt entirely natural. It didn’t feel like some big moment that had to happen to please fans; it felt like the sort of revelation a normal person might have. And introducing Abby is brave and I hope people dig it. It’s a unique game and managed to avoid fan service or any sense of pandering to boring ideas. Itmight not have that shocking ending, but everything else about its story says more about people and relationships. You know what I mean? Kirk….? Kirkkkk? KIIIRRRRRRRRRRRRK!
KM: Never talk to me again.